Cajas National Park
The main attraction in El Cajas National Park is its 275 plus Andean lakes. Located 29 km west of Cuenca, many people visit the park on the weekends for its trout fishing, rugged hiking, and camping. At an elevation of 4000m the vegetation is primarily páramo (high altitude grasslands) and the trees and ground are covered with mosses, lichens, and other fungi. The western part of the protected area is covered by dense cloud forest. Wildlife includes many birds such as hummingbirds, gray-breasted toucans, and the giant conebill.
From Cuenca, you can take a bus to the park information center where there is a basic refuge with beds and a kitchen. A fee is charged to foreigners.
Chimborazo allows mountain climbers the opportunity to be able to boast having reached the farthest point from the center of the earth. Chimborazo (6310m), the highest summit in Ecuador, is the gem of the Reserve along with the neighboring Carihuairazo Volcano. The area surrounding these two peaks is great for climbing and backpacking trips as well as day trekking. Typical dry páramo vegetation (high altitude grasslands) covers most of the area with altitudes ranging from 3800-6310m and the temperatures are extremely cold. Visitors can stay at one of the two basic refuges with fireplaces and cooking facilities, but it is necessary to bring your own sleeping bag.
The Reserve is located in the provinces of Tungurahua, Bolívar, and Chimborazo, and is accessible from either Riobamba or Mocha (north of Riobamba on the Panamericana highway).
Among the main attractions of the Cotacachi-Cayapas Reserve are the numerous Andean lakes that decorate the páramo (high altitude grassland). This 204,420-hectare reserve contains several ecosystems, from coastal tropical forest to pre-montane and montane cloud forest, to páramo. The altitude has an impressive range from 200m to 4939m above sea level.
The Cotocachi-Cayapas Reserve is home to spectacular wildlife including spectacled bears, anteaters, jaguars, tapirs, monkeys, caiman, bats, and more. Most of the tropical forest of this region is part of an ecosystem that has almost entirely disappeared in other coastal areas of South America. More than 20,000 species of plants have been recorded along with 500 bird types, making it one of the most biologically diverse regions on Earth.
There is an excellent 4-5 hour hike around the spectacular Cuicocha Volcano lagoon. This collapsed volcanic crater has a lake that is 200m deep and 3km in diameter. You can take a boat ride on the lake, which surrounds three protected islands.
Located in the provinces of Imbabura and Esmeraldas, there are numerous ways to enter the Reserve. The Eastern section of the reserve can be accessed from Quito by driving north towards Otavalo and continuing on to the town of Cotacachi. The Lagoon is 18 km west of this small town. You can also enter the Reserve from the lowlands by taking a canoe from San Miguel entrance.
Cotopaxi National Park is the most visited park in Ecuador with the snow capped Cotopaxi volcano (5897m) as its main attraction. The Park was established in 1975 and covers 33,393 hectares that are primarily páramo (high altitude grassland) and temperatures varying between 0-15 C. It offers excellent hiking, climbing, and mountain biking opportunities along with visitor facilities and administration services. Facilities include cabins, hiking trails, and opportunities to see various fauna such as condors, deer, fox, and hummingbirds.
Besides hiking up the Cotopaxi Volcano, Rumiñahui (4712m) and Morurco (4840m), which are described in the guidebook “Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador“, are two alternative hikes. You can also visit the Park’s museum, see experimental llama herds, and Inca ruins. The southwest part of the park, or the “Area Nacional de Recreacion Boliche” has a popular camping site.
The Park is conveniently located one and a half hours south of Quito in the Pichincha, Cotopaxi, and Napo Provinces. The Park is accessible by car or on foot, and there is no public transportation inside the area. There are two entrances, one south of Machachi and another north of Latacunga on the Panamerican Highway. Many tour operators in and around Quito offer guided trips into and around the park.
The Reserve was created in 1992 to protect 16,000 hectares of which páramo (high altitude grassland) is the primary vegetation. The flora is representative of the majority of the Ecuadorian páramos with the exception of the “Frailejones”, an endemic plant found in the Carchi province. Other than this typical plant which covers 85% of the landscape, there are a number of beautiful lakes including the “Voladero” lake system. There are paths that lead to the lakes, where you will find tourist information and designated camping areas. The Cerro Golondrinas Cloud Forest Project offers tours to the Reserve and accepts volunteers wishing to work at the Reserve. This Reserve can be reached by heading north from Quito to Tulcan, and from there, you can hire a bus or truck to take you the 15km to where the Reserve’s trail system begins.
Protecting 149,900 hectares of mostly cloud forest (Andean Humid and Subtropical Forest) and páramo (high altitude grasslands), the Iliniza Reserve offers tourists great hiking opportunities and breathtaking scenery.
The three main attractions include Laguna Quilotoa, an emerald crater lake; the Iliniza snowcapped twin-peaks; and an enormous tract of cloud forest. The Quilotoa crater lagoon (3800m) can be accessed from Zumbahua or Chugchilan. You can hike around the crater or down to the lake, both of these options being strenuous and offering great views. Visitor facilities include lodging and meals.
Iliniza North is a great preparatory climb for the higher peaks of Ecuador, or simply as an introduction to mountain climbing in the Andes for novice climbers. Iliniza South is a technical ice climb. Consult the climbing page or the guidebook, “Climbing and Hiking in Ecuador“, for further details.
The Cloud Forest of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve is accessible from many rural villages both in the Sierra and on the Coastal Plain. It is possible to walk through many climatatic zones of the Iliniza Ecological Reserve by starting at Laguna Quilotoa at 3800 meters and dropping down through the cloud forest to 1600 meters, or vice versa.
This small, protected area of 3383 hectares is located 30 minutes northwest of Quito. The volcanic crater floor of Pululahua is used for agriculture and makes for a fascinating hike. The western side of the crater is open thus receives moist winds from the Pacific, which helps the community develop this fertile land. Along with the benefits of the moist winds, the presence of alluvial deposits allows for fruitful cultivating on the crater floor.
You can descend from the rim to the crater floor on foot along a well-marked trail. The best time to visit is in the morning before clouds roll into the area. To get to the Reserve from Quito, take a bus headed to the Mitad del Mundo. The bus drops you off in the village of Calacalí and from here you can walk, or find vehicle transportation, for the remaining 1-km the crater’s edge. A visit to both the Pululahua crater and the Mitad del Mundo monument can be done on the same day.
Created in 1982, Podocarpus is the only Ecuadorian National Park in the southern Andes. The park derives its name from the commonly found Podocarpus tree, the only conifer native to Ecuador. Specialists have distinguished six distinct life zones here due to the range in altitude, from 1000m in the jungle to over 3600m in the páramo (high altitude grassland). Between Loja and Zamora you will discover unspoiled cloud forest and páramo vegetation that differs from the páramo found in northern Ecuador.
Ecotourism activities within the park boundaries are consistently increasing. At present, there is a basic refuge for tourists as well as a campsite. Responsible tourism is necessary to combat the damage done by local colonists who illegally bring cattle and horses into the park.
There are two main entrances, one is from the highlands and the other if from the lowlands. Take a bus from Loja to Vilcabamba, and get off at the park entrance, then hike a few kilometers to the Cajanuma park station. The second option is to take a bus from Loja to Zamora, and then hire a taxi to the Bombuscara park entrance.